The three companions camp in a protected place near the south banks of the Vydra. Chonkorchuk has had it with roughing it under the early winter sky, and as the winds begin to blow overnight, he manages to catch cold. Plamen, younger and more compact, is better at resisting the elements, but also sleeps more alertly. He is awakened before dawn by the sounds of a very large person foraging not 100 feet away from the campsite. From what it mutters to itself in a foreign tongue, Plamen gathers that it has discovered the carcass of a boar that starved or froze to death nearby, and it seems to be salvaging pieces of meat.
|Annar - any relation to Dubynia?|
Plamen quietly approaches and addresses the creature. He introduces himself as Annar, and says that he has come from far away in search of Druvvaldis, and asks whether Plamen knows him. Plamen bids him to wait, while he awakens his companions. With Druvvaldis’ assent, he reveals that Druvvaldis is with him, and that Annar’s search is at an end. Annar drags the boar carcass over to the fire, where Plamen shares some of his magical berries with him. Annar looks twice his size. He is a volot, from a family of nomadic giant riders, which came from the steppe at the invitation of the Grand Prince of Galinda to help build his cavalry. While in the prince’s service, he had occasion to visit the island where Druvvaldis’ ancestral shrine stood. There, after falling asleep, he was contacted by the spirit of the thunderlord Perkons, who told him to seek out Druvvaldis – the last survivor of the devastation wreaked by the Knights of Ritterheim, and the scion of a priestly family. So Annar has been traveling east, and seeking Druvvaldis and followers of the old gods ever since. Chonkorchuk tells him that he is also one of these, and that his mistress, Baba Yaga, has promised that the Old Gods will soon return. After they complete the tasks set out by her, they will be admitted to Baba Yaga’s realm. But first, them must deal with a group of smugglers who, he says, have stolen one of Baba Yaga’s servants. Annar is asked to join the group so that he may help it complete its mission (and they his), and the volot accepts.
The following morning, the four adventurers cross the Vydra, and proceed to search for the smuggler’s cabin, which they have never seen directly. Making their way north, they eventually discover a hedge that familiar spirits indicate surrounds a small cabin. No one is outside, but a smoking chimney indicates that the cabin is occupied. Attempts to sense magical auras reveals that there are two sources of transmutative magic inside (likely indicating a pair of shapeshifters). Chonkorchuk becomes invisible, and finds the narrow entrance through the hedge on the eastern side. Meanwhile, the rest set up on the north side. Druvvaldis hands Annar his scythe, and the volot prepares to mow down the hedge in case of an assault.
The hermit alerts the residents to his presence. A pair of shutters opens, and an arrow flies at Chonkorchuk despite his precautions. He takes cover behind the porch, and addresses the people inside, indicating that he is aware of Vasya Toptygin’s presence, and demanding they release him back into the service of Baba Yaga, from whom he was stolen. His threats and offer of cooperation to locate Lionia gets him admitted inside, but his interlocutor – Radei Lopukh – the leader of the smugglers – says that since Lionia defrauded them, they have nothing to lose, and believe that Chonkorchuk’s companions are in possession of a treasure. He offers Chonkorchuk a chance to convince Vasya, but warns that it won’t be easy.
|Vasya Toptygin performs a bear's service for his companions|
The cabin is messy, and currently inhabited by nine rough-edged smugglers, some similar to the ones the party defeated in the woods over a week ago, some looking more dangerous, and better-armed. Lying on the stove against the wall opposite the doorway is a large, one-handed man, who matches Vasya’s description. He seems considerably less cowed by the invisible visitor than Radei – his nominal leader. In response to Chonkorchuk’s entreaties and threats, he indicates that he has no interest in returning to do menial labor for Baba Yaga, and would rather stay on as the smuggler’s underling. When Chonkorchuk persists in haranguing him, Vasya insults the hermit, accusing him of being a beggar with nothing to offer, who comes without gifts, and is so worthless and poor he is even afraid to show his face. He recites the insult as a rhyme, which is actually quite hurtful.
Chonkorchuk has had enough. He exits the cabin, and plunges it into darkness, signaling to his companions that it’s time to attack. Annar mows through the hedge, and is greeted by blind-fire from the cabin, though on account of his size, he still finds himself on the receiving end of darts and arrows. Behind him, Plamen sets the cabin on fire, while Druvvaldis summons forth a badger spirit to add ferocity to the outnumbered companions. Eventually, some of the smugglers manage to make their way out of the cabin, and attack the volot head on. They are no match for him, but harry him enough so that he soon decides to take cover in the darkness. Marshalling their forces for a last stand after getting out of the darkness, Radei and one of the other smugglers hit Chonkorchuk and Plamen, now exposed, with expert shots from around the corner of the hut. Then, Radei and Vasya, in the form of a bear-man, along with one other, charge the hermit and the healer, who are no longer protected by the volot. They manage to knock Chonkorchuk down, and to nearly upend Plamen as well. The outcome of the battle stands on the edge of a knife, but the fefila quickly revives Chonkorchuk, and Plamen is able to knock the bear out with his staff. The rest are dealt with quickly. Radei manages to flee, and another smuggler is brought down as he tries to do the same, while a third surrenders. The smuggler’s cabin, however, has caught fire…